California vs. Nebraska: two models of university governance

Protesters against the California tuition hike.

Two important education news items today both have to do with public universities. They invite interesting comparisons of the types of governance structure in our public universities.

First, the University of California is set to increase undergraduate tuition by 32%.  The increase is meant to make up for large cuts in state funding.

Second, the University of Nebraska is considering regulations to restrict stem cell research more severely than federal regulations.  If the regulation passes, it would be the first time that a university implements higher limits for stem cell research than either state or federal laws.

Both measures are meeting oppositions from the public.  In California, the tuition hike is being protested by thousands of students across the state.  In Nebraska, the medical research community has spoken out against the possible restrictions, arguing that a policy like this would have extremely negative effects on Nebraska’s ability to attract research funding and scholars.

Which leads to the question: how much control does the public have over the decisions and the decision-making processes at these two universities?

The answer: probably much more so at Nebraska than at California.  Though the decisions at both universities were made by the board of regents, the two boards have very different appointment processes.

In California, the state constitution mandates the appointment process for the board of regents.  There are 26 members on the board.  18 members are appointed by the governor and serve 12 year terms, 7 members are ex officio members which include the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the state assembly, and various officers of the alumni association that serve one-year terms. There is also a student member appointed by the board, who serves a one-year term.

The University of Nebraska board of regents, on the other hand, is almost entirely elected by the general public.  The board has 8 voting members serving 6-year-terms, all of which are elected by the public in the 8 districts within the state, and 4 non-voting members serving 1-year terms, who are student body presidents from each of the four campuses.

The selection process for the board of regents and the terms of service ensure that, relatively speaking, the public exerts a more direct control on the University of Nebraska.   In contrast, despite the tradition of grass-root democracy and the notorious state-wide referendum process in California, the public control over major decisions in its university system is surprisingly meager and indirect.

Sure, the governor is theoretically accountable to the public for both his policy choices about the university system and his regent appointments, but I doubt that those issues are the most salient ones on the minds of voters during any election. Thus, depending on which side of the fence you are on, you can either call the Nebraska system “more accountable to the public” or say that the University of California “enjoys a greater degree of autonomy.”

Given the more direct public control, we can expect that the decisions made by the University of Nebraska will likely reflect the mood and ideologies of its constituency more accurately than California.  The regents of the University of California, on the other hand, will more likely make controversial or unpopular decisions, because there are minimal consequences to themselves.

The drastic tuition hike that the regents of the University of California approved today once again spurred criticism that major public research universities are becoming more and more indistinguishable from private universities.  But long before its tuition begins to resemble that of a private university, the governing body of the University of California system already resembled an quasi-autonomous institution.

The inevitable question is, of course, which system is better?  More public control, or more autonomy?  That, of course, depends on what type of school you think a public university should be.

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